The door chimed, and Shepard sighed softly. Someone had drawn the short straw. She schooled her voice into Gracefully Putting Up With Subordinate While Busy With Important Matters as she answered.
There was a moment's pause.
"It's me. Should I -"
"Garrus! Come in."
She hadn't expected him, but if there was anyone she wanted to have around right now, it would be Garrus. The door opened and she heard him take a few hesitant steps.
He came down the stairs and stopped when he caught sight of her. To the untrained eye, his stance might have looked like a relaxed and confident parade rest. But Shepard knew him well enough to see that he was almost fidgeting in discomfort.
"Anything I can do for you?"
"I just wanted to..."
She allowed herself a tiny smile as he trailed off, obviously struggling with the words.
"Check if I'm sitting here in my pyjamas, eating ice cream by the gallon and writing angsty poetry in my diary?"
He blinked several times.
She went on as though he hadn't spoken.
"I'm not. Except for the pyjamas, and of course I'd never say no to a gallon of ice cream. But there is no diary and definitely no kind of poetry involved, at all."
She dipped the tiny brush into the vial and went back to work.
"So what are you doing?"
"Painting my toenails."
Another pause. She really shouldn't be enjoying this, but seeing her cool and badass friend all flustered and scrambling for words was strangely endearing.
Endearing. Should tell him that. Can you make a turian blush? We'll have to look it up.
"I ... see. Should I be leaving you alone for that?"
"No, it's fine. I don't usually have an audience, but if you can stand the sight of my weird and disgusting alien feet, feel free to look. And sit down."
He did, carefully and deliberately, as though expecting her nail polish to explode at the slightest disturbance.
"Is this some kind of human ritual?"
"No, just cosmetic. It makes me feel pretty."
She finished with her left pinky toe, closed the vial and wiped her brush on the cleaning pad.
"But no one can see it. You wear shoes all the time."
"Yes, but I know it's there. And I like the thought of going up against a krogan warlord and yelling into his face 'I'm gonna fuck you up and I'm wearing pink toenails while I do it!'"
"You really say that?"
"No, but I could. If I wanted to."
She picked up the sheet of tiny stickers. Silver starburst on pink? Why not? She scraped her fingernail over the image to activate the nano adhesive, then placed it onto her left big toenail.
"Of course, I'd rather be painting my fingernails, but combat always plays hell on manicures."
"That's ... unfortunate. Makes you want to reconsider your lifestyle choices, doesn't it?"
"You mean like, less punching, more head butting?"
As the finishing touch, she placed a tiny glittering crystal in the center of the star burst and pressed down for the adhesive to bond.
"Something like that, yeah."
"But that always messes with my hair."
"Life is full of difficult decisions."
She stretched out her legs to admire her handiwork. Perfect.
"Just say it, Garrus."
"I'm pretty sure you didn't come up here to admire my artistic prowess. So just spit it out and I promise I won't bite your head off."
"Do humans do that?"
"No, and you're changing the subject."
"Fine." He blew out a long breath, obviously steeling himself. "Are you okay?"
"There. Now was that so hard?"
His brow plates twitched in the equivalent of a human eye roll.
"To quote a wise woman: No, and you're changing the subject."
"Sounds like she knows what she's talking about."
She sank back against the head rest and considered. Anyone else would have immediately gotten the standard answer. But Garrus? Not only was she certain he wouldn't believe it, but she found she didn't really want to lie to him anyway.
"I'm okay. Mostly. Or will be, at any rate." She gave him a wry smile. "That sounded awfully confident, didn't it?"
He still looked as though he was bracing himself for at least a medium sized nuclear war head when he asked, "Do you want to talk about it?"
Yes, desperately. No, absolutely not. Both equally true. Shepard closed her eyes and wondered where to begin. Garrus seemed to have his own ideas, though.
"I'm sure he'll, uh, come around. Probably already kicking himself for what he said to you."
She sighed inwardly. Might as well start there.
"Maybe. Or maybe not. Kaidan's got his own life and I can't very well expect him to drop everything and come running just because I asked him to."
But she had expected it, and it hurt more than she wanted to admit that he'd just walked away.
That's what you get for relying on a man's feelings. Should have remembered that we have the rules for a reason.
"He really didn't give you the chance to explain. If we could make him listen, I'm sure he'd understand."
She looked down at her newly painted toes and imagined that it was Kaidan sitting here instead of Garrus. Kaidan moving onto her ship, maybe even into her bed. It was true, for the past few weeks this thought had helped keep her going in the impersonal silence of her cabin. But underneath the yearning she couldn't hide the guilty little flicker of relief that she'd no longer have to think about having the dreaded 'it's not you, it's me' conversation.
"But we won't. We have a mission, Garrus, and I doubt the Collectors are going to be very considerate of my personal life."
He didn't look entirely convinced, and she smirked at him.
"Unless you're telling me you can't function without your Mechs vs. Thresher Maws buddy around?"
"Please, Shepard, that game is so 2183."
His voice turned serious again as he looked away.
"I just thought that with everything going on... You deserve to have someone by your side who supports you."
"Guess that's what I've got you for."
She'd meant it as a joke, but somehow the words came out awkward and jarring. She started again, trying to fill the silence.
"And he really wasn't my type, anyway. You know, the guy I usually go for is more outgoing and confident. Charming and easy to get along with. And as soon as I really start to like him, he turns out to be a big selfish jerk."
Nice. Your lightening the mood skills could use some work.
"You could say he's at least making an attempt at that last one."
She shook her head and stood up, pacing the few steps to the empty aquarium. The glass felt cool under her hand as she watched the endless stream of bubbles rise to the top. Here was the real issue. Part of her was afraid that if she spelled it all out, he'd leave just as Kaidan had. But she also knew that she had to talk to someone or she'd drive herself crazy. And it really wasn't fair to keep it from him, especially since he'd shown her nothing but trust and support. Still facing the shimmering water, she began, "What if he's right, though? What if I am just a Cerberus puppet? I could be a clone, with my memories stored in a network of neural implants. Or a mech, an AI coded to think it's a human. What if I'm programmed to follow their plans, what if they're controlling me in some way?"
She finally turned to face him.
"How would I know?"
She started pacing the front of the aquarium, up and down, as she finally let everything spill out.
"I keep watching myself, the way I think, the decisions I make, and I wonder, is this right? Is this plausible? Is this something the real Shepard would do?
"And then I think, if I'm having these doubts, doesn't that prove I'm really me? But what if that's just part of the programming? To make me more authentic?
"And even if it's not, even if this really is my own mind, there could still be something hidden in there, a chip or program just waiting for its trigger, the right moment to take control of this."
She waved her hands down her body, then rested them against the aquarium again. The coolness did nothing to soothe her.
"Four billion credits, Garrus. Probably more by now. The Illusive Man would be an idiot to spend that kind of money without some sort of fail-save attached. And he may be many things, but I don't think he's stupid."
She took a deep breath and wrapped her arms around herself.
"So tell me, how would he make sure his little science project doesn't just walk away when she's done with him? Have you thought about that?"
She locked eyes with him for a long moment before he answered.
"I have, actually."
She felt a tiny knot of dread clench in her stomach. Had he noticed something she'd missed?
"When I came to after..." He waved at his face to indicate the bandage, "Chakwas tried to explain everything, but still. The whole resurrection, and Cerberus, and new Normandy and everything... You've got to admit it sounds a bit hard to believe in places."
"Believe me, I know. And I'm the one it happened to." She shook her head softly. "Makes me even more glad you signed on anyway, to be honest."
"Yeah, well." He rubbed the back of his head and looked down. "I also figured that if it really was too good to be true, I'd make sure they wouldn't be able to disgrace your memory like that."
It took her a moment to decipher what he meant to say, but when she did, the wave of relief that hit her almost brought her to her knees
"Garrus." She waited until he looked up, then spread her palms in the turian gesture of accepting a gift. "Thank you."
His mandibles twitched in obvious discomfort.
"I admit it sounded a lot less messed up when I was full of painkillers."
"I mean it." She crossed the room and flopped down on the couch so they were at eye level again. "It means a lot to know that someone's got my back, no matter what."
"I try. But mostly I'm just here for the ass-kicking. Remember? Shepard and Vakarian whipping the galaxy into shape? I'm still waiting for my golden cape, though."
"You wish." She gave him a mock glare. "I'm the one with the golden cape. Cause I'm the resourceful and enigmatic protagonist, remember?"
"Oh, I do." His mandibles flared in a smile she found hard to interpret. "And so do you. You ever told that to anyone else?"
"No? Should I?"
"No. And I haven't told anyone, either. So if you remember it..."
She smiled as she finished the thought.
"At least some part of me has to be from the original."
Of course Garrus would pick up on little details to make his case. With all his skill on the battle field, it was easy to forget that he was a pretty good investigator, too. She really wanted to leave it at that, but knew that she couldn't allow herself the indulgence.
"Promise me something?"
He gave her a wary look at the change in tone.
"I'm not going to like this, am I?"
"If you ever suspect that I'm not - that I might be compromised in some way..."
She held his gaze for a long moment before he continued.
"I won't let them use you. I promise."
He touched the fingertips of his left hand to his collar, and she let herself relax against the couch again.
For a moment they were silent, both wrapped in their own thoughts, before Garrus spoke again.
"But look, Shepard, for what it's worth, I really think you're you. You move like you, you sound like you, you smell like you -"
She couldn't quite stop the amused snort that drew from her.
"That your way of telling me I should shower more often?"
"What? No, I didn't - oh, damn. I'm sorry. Forgot that was a sensitive topic for humans."
She grinned and waved him off.
"It's okay, I don't mind. And yeah, I guess I smell the same, since Cerberus had the consideration to supply me with the exact same toiletries I used to use before."
"I'm sure your XO was thrilled about that part of her job. But I actually meant your own scent. That hasn't changed either."
He was obviously determined to get her mind off the subject, and this time she allowed herself to go along with it.
"I know turians have better noses than most, but can you really tell people apart by smell?"
"Sure. Unless they've been dousing themselves in artificial scents, like you nose-blind species tend to do."
"You're telling me turians don't use deodorant?"
"Why would we? As long as you're clean, what's the point in going around trying to smell like something other than yourself?"
She mulled that over and mentally filed it under 'fascinating things about turians to be researched in depth later'.
"So what do I smell like?"
"My scent. How do I smell?"
He gave her a blank look.
"Yeah, of course, but how would you describe it?"
"I wouldn't. It would be like asking what your voice sounds like. It sounds like your voice. And you scent smells like your scent."
"Sure, but there are nice voices and not so nice ones. Do I at least smell good, or am I stinking up the battery every time I come to see you?"
He drew his mandibles in close to his jaw.
"That sounds like one of those questions where there are only wrong answers."
"It's not, really. I'm just curious."
He hesitated, and for a second she feared that she was indeed a walking assault on his sensitive nose.
"I really hope this isn't offensive in human culture, but yeah. You do smell ... nice, I guess."
"Hm. Good to know."
But of course that opened up other questions. Questions that would probably keep her awake for the rest of the night, scouring the extranet for -
"What are you thinking?"
"Really? Because you were just looking at me the way Mordin looks at his favourite tissue samples."
Damn. He really knew her far too well. All right then, he only had himself to blame.
"What do turians smell like?"
For a second he looked confused, but then his mandibles fluttered outward in amusement.
"I know this answer may surprise you, but we actually smell ... like turians."
"Thank you. Being admirably unhelpful there."
"I try. But honestly, if you want to find out, you could just, you know, smell one."
Which was really tempting, but still.
"Wouldn't that be weird?"
He flexed one mandible in a small smirk.
"I'm a turian serving on a pro-human ship under a quasi-rogue Alliance officer who used to be dead. This doesn't even register on the weird scale."
She tried resist, really, but with an opening like this?
"So you're saying your weird-o-meter could use some ... calibrations?"
He gave her a hard look.
"I will pretend you did not say that."
"Of course. Calibrations are no joking matter."
"So can I smell you?"
He raised one brow plate in a gesture he must have picked up from the human crew.
"Not sure if you can, but you're free to try."
As she scooted closer to him on the couch, he closed his eyes and tilted his head away from her. When she moved her face to his neck, she was struck by the thought that she'd never been this close to him before. Not like this, not without her armour and bullets flying and people yelling around them. She found herself fascinated by the small cluster of plates behind his jaw and wondered if she'd ever actually touched his skin...
A tiny shift in his breathing brought her back to the task at hand. Shepard closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. There was gun oil, and the faint electric haze of the battery, and beneath that something dark and sharp and gleaming, like an obsidian blade wrapped in silk...
So much for no bad poetry.
She let herself fall back against the couch and Garrus opened his eyes.
"So how can I tell if what I'm smelling is you or general turian or something else entirely?"
He looked at her for a long moment.
"Please tell me you're not planning to sniff every turian you meet to find out."
"Why not? It would make meetings with the Council a lot more fun."
"I'm sure councillor Sparatus would be thrilled to serve in your quest for knowledge. And your ambassador would probably implode from indignation."
"So you're saying there's really no downside."
He snorted a laugh and she grinned, which quickly turned into a badly stifled yawn.
"It's okay. I can take a hint."
She rolled her eyes.
"I didn't -"
"I know. It's been a long day."
For moment they sat in companionable silence, and Shepard found herself with the irrational wish that he didn't have to leave at all. At which point of course he stood up.
"Maybe we should both get some rest."
"You're right. And Garrus?" She waited until she had his complete attention before again spreading out her open palms. "I'm glad you're here. I really am." His whole posture shifted until he looked just as uncomfortable as when he'd arrived. "And thanks for coming up tonight."
"You're welcome. Of course."
He rubbed the back of his neck and looked like he was about to say more, but then straightened again.
"Not for now. Good night."
He left her to the silence that somehow seemed less impersonal than before.
And later, when she finally fell asleep, there were two thoughts quietly digging their roots into the back of her mind.
One was the fact that Garrus thought she smelled nice. And the other was the fact that she thought Garrus smelled pretty good himself.